Marquette fans need no reminder of how the end of the 2018-2019 season fared, but here’s a reminder anyway: Following a blowout win on the road against Providence, the team lost six of their final seven games. A major factor in this slump was a stunning increase in the amount of turnovers that led to easy transition opportunities. Despite the vaunted offensive attack led by Markus Howard and Sam Hauser, they couldn’t make up for the points gifted to the other team.
Over the final nine games of the season, the Golden Eagles coughed up the ball on over a fifth of their possessions — that magical 20% mark — six different times. Over the course of five games from February 20 through March 6, they were turning it over a fourth of the time — 25%! — on average. Only the bottom feeders of the traditional power conferences were posting these numbers over the full season, and Marquette was displaying these tendencies at the drop of a hat during the most important time of the year.
Of course, nothing ever happens at random. Markus had a busted paw thanks to a tumble against Villanova during that time without a downtick in usage (his usage actually went way up), secondary contributors not named Brendan Bailey all went through major slumps at the same time, and concerns of team chemistry came into question when the Brothers Hauser decided to transfer from Marquette*. All these factors didn’t appear to be long term factors, though. Steve Wojciechowski’s teams didn’t have much of a turnover-prone history and injuries, slumps, and cohesiveness can all be fixed over a summer.
Except the turnovers kept coming to start this season. Against defenses like Maryland and Wisconsin, teams can be expected to lose a few more possessions, but they had butter fingers against teams like Loyola Maryland and Robert Morris. Ed Morrow at one point was turning it over every other time he touched the ball (he’s sitting at 24.5% whilst on his leave of absence), Koby McEwen turned in a better than average turnover number a total of twice during non-conference play, and even Sacar Anim found himself being a little careless. All told, the team was turning it over 21.4% of the time following their win against Kansas State, which was barely scraping the top 300. It was a worrying trend that led scholars to believe that Marquette needed to solely rely on defense to win games, despite having the basketball embodiment of Charmander running the offense.
Over the course of conference play, the tide has changed dramatically. The team overall still plays like they are trying to make Katy Perry’s hit single “Hot N Cold” a biographical interpretation of their season, but they have remained steadfast in ensuring that teams aren’t getting the easy transition opportunities they once were. Since that Kansas State game Marquette has turned the ball over 15.7% of the time, which would be top 15 in the country over a whole season. Their season average has dropped to a respectable 18.6% as a result of the sudden levelheadedness.
I’m going to say it again: Over the last nine games, Marquette is turning the ball over on merely 15.7% of their possessions, a far cry from the 25% that they fumbled around with at the end of last season.
Who is leading the charge on this front? Markus Howard, because of course he is. His personal turnover rate (percentage of possessions ending with him touching the ball that result in a turnover) has decreased from 17.3% to 14.8%. Don’t be mistaken, he was by no means poor at taking care of the ball. His previous rate is about average for a guard. His total turnover count was merely the result of him having the ball 40% of the time on offense. But he has started to play off the ball just a little bit more to take the weight of managing the offense off his shoulders a bit, and it’s resulted in him inching closer to being in the top 500 in terms of hanging onto the rock. Every single year on campus he has taken a part of his game that isn’t great and smoothed it over to perfect his craft. This year is looking to be no exception.
He’s not the only one improving, either. Before taking a personal leave of absence, Ed Morrow was starting to calm himself down in the post and avoid traveling as often as he was. Sacar Anim has had by far the biggest drop (23.6% to 16.6%), although he’s not used nearly as much as Howard. Theo John and Brendan Bailey have shown no signs of regression from being paragons of ball control virtue earlier in the year, either.
To give an idea of the overall effect this has had, the team’s ability to make shots hasn’t changed much since the Kansas State game. Because of the dramatic turnover decrease, Marquette’s offensive rating has increased from 105.3 to 110.0 and now boasts a top 30 ranking. Despite Howard still being the only scoring option, this offense can still pose a threat in March if they’re able to take care of the little things that can give him more opportunities to hit shots. Like, say, for example, merely having the ball long enough to take a shot.
This is clearly a team effort going on. For as much as fans were clamoring for Wojo to fix this glaring issue, he’s responded; even if it was slower than we would hope. Fixing a problem like this in the middle of the season, much less at the start of conference season, is a Herculean task and he has succeeded so far. Obviously the team still has issues, one of them being the lack of emphasis in forcing turnovers on the other side of the court, but holding their own on the offensive end can take a ton of the load off of Markus Howard’s shoulders, even if secondary contributors don’t turn into the scoring options that they need to be.
* — Drink.